University of St Andrews
ML2002, Aspects of Language 1998-99, Dr. Sneddon
Sociolinguistics Essay Assignment

"Can the core-linguistic notion of 'homogeneous' language systems be reconciled with the sociolinguistic conception of language varieties? Discuss critically."

Christian Asseburg, 11 March 1999

Please state your source when quoting.

Problem Outline

Linguistics, defined as the study of language, comprises of many different fields of investigation. Some branches focus on particular languages in turn and their internal structure, such as morphology or syntax, whereas others attempt a broader placement of language use in contexts, such as sociolinguistics, focusing on the relations between language and society, or psycholinguistics, which investigates the ties between language and the human brain. Each of these different approaches pursues the study of language in its own way, and they do not always agree what exactly the term 'language' means. This apparent confusion is also obvious in introductory textbooks on linguistics, in the lack of definitions given for 'language'.

The notion of looking at one particular language and investigating the patterns in which sounds, phonemes, morphemes, words, phrases, and sentences combine to form meaningful utterances within the framework of that one language is crucial to the approaches of core linguistics, i. e. those branches of linguistics that analyse languages and their components. Certainly, being unable to define to what extent a language is allowed to vary from other varieties of the same language would cause fundamental problems in these approaches to linguistics. For those reasons, one of the common definitions of language advanced by researchers of core linguistics is the one based on mutual intelligibility: Two instances of language are varieties of the same language if, and only if, speakers of these varieties can communicate with each other.

In sociolinguistics, however, this definition of mutual intelligibility will not suffice as a firm framework. Studying languages and language use in the context of society yields many shades of variation that suggest, to some researchers at least, that no two speakers use exactly the same code to express their thoughts, even if they sustain frequent contact in communication. And, what is more, some language varieties seem to be mutually intelligible although they are commonly referred to as being different languages (Norwegian and Swedish, for example). So there is an apparent need for a more precise definition of 'language'.

Geographic Variation

Language differences due to different geographic origins of individual speakers are probably the most obvious instances of sociolinguistic variation. Although languages tend to assimilate at a faster pace in these days of mass media and an unprecedented ease of long-distance communication, some languages continue to exhibit marked regional differences across the areas in which they are spoken. In Europe, many languages are closely related, but German, for example, has many dialects that are not mutually intelligible (take the variety of German spoken in Northern Germany and that spoken around Stuttgart, say). Yet, German is commonly seen as one language. On the other hand, some languages seem to be part of dialect chains that link mutually intelligible varieties of several languages (for example, Portuguese-Spanish-Catalan-French-Italian). Therefore, mutual intelligibility is not a very good definition in this geographic regard.

Social Variation

Human languages usually provide a speaker with more than one way of expressing the same information, and to choose an appropriate form of expression is part of the speaker's linguistic competence. This choice will depend on the relation between speaker and addressee, the circumstances of the conversation as well as the intended effect, but also to a considerable degree on the social background of each speaker. Commonly, most of these codes will be grouped together under the heading of one language, where words have formal or colloquial connotations, etc. However, in some languages, the differences between the high and low varieties are so striking (in Arabic, for example) that linguists prefer to speak of diglossia, defined as a stable language state in which more than one language occur side by side, each prevailing in its domain of usage. As most speakers are competent in using and understanding both language varieties, the diglossic situation highlights another weakness of the definition of language as a set of mutually intelligible codes. A further problem with this definition is the inherent dependency on a listener's willingness to understand another speaker, which will be influenced by different perceived social backgrounds associated with each variety of a language. These circumstances, again, blur the sociolinguistic validity of the definition of language as a set of mutually intelligible varieties.

Issues in Bilingualism

The study of bilingual individuals takes the complications involved in defining 'language' one step further by insisting that languages that had previously been treated as distinct now be seen as one code for purposes of communication among a set of speakers (immigrants, say, or a family headed by bilingual parents). If immigrants to one country develop a variety of their mother tongue which differs widely in word borrowing and accent, say, at which point should it be given language status, rather than being somewhere in-between the two original languages? And, in bilingual education, speakers may develop different patterns of using each language, resembling a diglossic situation insofar as each language is associated with particular domains of usage. But should this state of diglossia be treated as a language itself, when the criteria that different speakers apply in selecting the appropriate code are shared by several speakers, especially in contrast to other groups of speakers who, in comparable circumstances, may have developed a different usage? A similar issue is exhibited by the creation of Pidgins and Creoles: what exactly constitutes the difference between the case of two speakers of different languages who barely manage to communicate by using a limited set of words from either language, and that of a final emergence of a common code, different from either of the original languages, and shared by a sizeable group of speakers? These questions highlight the awkwardness of any of the definitions that have so far been given for 'language'.

Beyond Linguistics: a Comparison

In this section, I would like to illustrate my opinion on the apparent schism between the core-linguistic notion of 'homogeneous' language systems and the continuum of variations posited by sociolinguistics. It may sound quite outlandish to compare languages to vegetables, but many of the difficulties encountered in defining 'language' are paralleled in the realm of vegetables. To define 'vegetable', is it essential to know how to tell apart a turnip from a swede? These two beets are closely related, and in the same way as a speaker of one language might prefer his variety to a similar one of another speaker, even when it is very difficult for an outsider to distinguish these varieties, let alone associate particular connotations with each of these, it will be difficult for an agriculturally uneducated person to state the differences between turnips and swedes. At the same time, it is perfectly legitimate to talk about properties common to beets in general, even when only turnips and swedes are available for investigation, and without having to debate whether beetroot, horseradish, or maybe even carrots should be classified as beets, too. In a similar vein, some applications require just the notion of 'vegetable' for a satisfactory solution (such as, "Eating vegetables is good for your health."), whereas it may be necessary to investigate a single 'specimen' vegetable to find out which details it shares with some other vegetables and where it differs (for example, "Among vegetables, carrots are rich in vitamin A."). In analogy to the problems involved in defining 'language' as mutually intelligible varieties, one could argue to which extent a hybrid between two closely related vegetables, peas and green beans, say, is different from either, and whether this is in turn different from mangetout.


The above discussion has shown that linguistic investigation may be pursued along many divergent lines. Sociolinguistics requires the analysis of the relations between language and society, and since it is always a particular group of speakers which interacts with society, sociolinguistic investigation cannot be carried out along abstract lines. At the opposite end, a structuralist's analysis of the internal rules governing a language system has to focus on a particular language, even if in the end the choice of language barely matters. Chomsky, for example, chose to follow an ideal approach to 'language', by ignoring any kinds of interaction that a speaker may be inclined to undergo with regards to other speakers.

Linguistics covers a broad subject area, and progress seems to be made even where a common definition for 'language' has not been accepted universally. I think that 'language' has to be seen as a multifaceted term that refers to languages or varieties of a language on a level appropriate for the respective depth of study. In sociolinguistics, 'language' covers a set of different codes as well as their relations to society, whereas 'language' in a structural approach is more likely to refer to a language system along Saussure's idea of 'langue', and 'language' in comparative linguistics will refer to languages or language varieties that are appropriately different from each other with regards to that comparison. In this sense, the meaning of the term 'language' tends to define itself to fit the context in which it is being used.

I doubt that linguistics requires a unified definition of language, especially when fruitful research can be accomplished anyway. Language change and variation are essential properties of language, and these include different languages as well as differences between the usages and styles of one language among different speakers, but also language change over time. 'Language' as such, therefore, needs to have a considerably large amount of referential freedom, or the concept of 'language' would become too narrow to be useful in the long run. Furthermore, having a fuzzy subject at the core of one's investigations extends the possible scope of one's investigation, too.


Christian Asseburg, last revision 11 Mar 1999.